Friday, December 1, 2017

Bruce Springsteen's darkness not just on the edge of town

     Bruce Springsteen was our Elvis.
     When I became a teenager in the mid-1970s, the original King of Rock and Roll was an over-the-hill joke. But Bruce? On the cover of both Time and Newsweek, young, raw, supremely talented.
     His music ticked off the milestones of my life: howling along with "Rosalita" in a circle of beer-soaked freshmen. Screaming myself hoarse to the man himself live at McGaw Hall.
     The Boss had my back. When I was gathering my courage to get married, he offered up "Tunnel of Love," his crawl through the carnival of matrimony.
     His music was epic, inspirational, almost protective. I remember listening to his live album on a Walkman during two weeks wandering Port au Prince in 1987, a sonic talisman against the overwhelming reality of Haiti. I might be alone in the Cite de Soleil slum, but I was born in the USA. No retreat, no surrender.
     Springsteen even introduced me to the indignities of age, when I played his music for my own teenage sons. Without hesitation, proud, revealing a wonder. Give a listen to this, boys. I was genuinely flabbergasted when they greeted his music with a shrug. "The songs are all the same, dad," one said. I wilted, the magician with a stream of cards tumbling out of his sleeve. Oh right. I too will grow old and everything I care about will be mocked as a joke.
     Fanhood faded. Years passed. Then a few months ago I joined Audible, and one of its quirks is that it charges you for a book a month. You might as well pick something and listen. I chose "Born to Run," narrated by the Boss himself. A nostalgia trip.

     The first half is his laser-guided-missile climb from working class Freehold, New Jersey, his chain-smoking blue collar father's taunts burning in his ears. Once Springsteen becomes a rock star, however, the book really gets interesting. Turns out becoming rich and famous was the easy part.
     "At the end of the day, I was simply a guy rarely comfortable in his own skin," he writes.
     Panic attacks. Clinical depressions that lasted 18 months. Medication. He calls himself "broken," "damaged goods," adrift in "an ocean of despair," lashed by "torrents of self-loathing."
     Stability, marriage, a home, kids all elude him. It turns out that while I was dreaming of being Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Springsteen was dreaming of being me.
     His book, published last year, is a tremendous gift to those who struggle through this difficult life, a.k.a., just about everybody. Springsteen lays himself bare with rare candor. He recounts 30 years of therapy. Nobody looks cool weeping in his psychologist's office, but Bruce isn't trying to be cool. He's trying to do in a book what he does in his songs: tell the truth and maybe help people make sense of things.
     "Born to Run" really sings when when his three kids show up.
     "You're gonna miss it," his wife, Patty Scialfa, warns, of their children's early morning routine, leading to this:
      The next morning, grumbling, stolid faced, I rolled out of bed at seven a.m. and found my way downstairs. "What do I do?"
      She looked at me and said, "Make the pancakes."
     Make the pancakes? I'd never made anything but music my entire life. I...I...I...don't know how! 
     He does. Springsteen also tries to shield his children from his fame. When people stop him for autographs, he tells his kids he is "Barney for adults." And he shares a sentence that every prospective parent should be made to memorize before being allowed to procreate: "At the end of the day, as parents, you are their audience. They are not meant to be yours."
     Much hard-won wisdom is here, the truest being that no success is huge enough to inoculate a person from the sting of living. There is great comfort here for we ordinary schlubs trying to get through the day. If Bruce Frickin' Springsteen has to fight to be happy— the struggle continues—has to work hard to attain the serenity we all seek, and can be this honest about it, how can any of us be ashamed of our struggles?
     "At the end of the day," Springsteen writes, "life trumps art, always." He says it twice.


  1. One of his kids attended the same college as mine. I saw him there once, same other middle aged parents trudging some thing to his daughters apartment. The kids seemed mostly unimpressed. If they even knew who he was. It made me feel ancient.

    There's something about having children that's a great leveler. Many years ago, a co-workers very conservative husband who is a bit of a what we now call a helicopter parent found himself commiserating with another very hands on dad at a college move in about how much they would miss the kids. " Great guy" he told his wife after the other dad departed. "Honey, you know that's Bill Ayers, right?"

  2. I read "Born to Run" a year ago. I remember looking at it in book stores two or three times, thinking "He wrote a 500 page tribute to himself? I don't have time for that." But, I'm addicted to books and in a weak moment, I bought it. Man, am I glad I did! This is no self-congratulatory tribute; it's a confession. Here is a man who could rest on his laurels and allow his adoring fans a glimpse at his superstar life. Instead, The Boss bares his soul, and in the process becomes human. I was a casual fan before. In the 70's I had "Born to Run" on 8-track, and in the 80's I bought "Born in the USA" on vinyl and later on CD, but that's about as far as it went. Since reading the book I've picked up a lot of his later CD's and have been pleasantly surprised to find that he's still rocking and kicking ass. A few later albums worth checking out are "Magic", "Wreaking Ball", and "High Hopes". Great stuff! You won't be disappointed.

  3. My cousins are from Freehold, one went to high school with Bruce. He remembered him, but not vividly. My cousins tried to get me into his early albums and I was like "he's from HERE?! Got any Stones?" Then, the older friends who helped me get into classic rock really shoved "Born to Run" into my face, and I balked. Seemed overwrought. "Darkness" came, and I got it. This book is a great read. "I wilted, the magician with a stream of cards tumbling out of his sleeve. Oh right. I too will grow old and everything I care about will be mocked as a joke." Yup.

  4. Why do you have to make me cry first thing in the morning Neil?

    1. Apologies. I didn't think it was a weeper. I laughed out loud listening to the book, but never cried, and I can choke up seeing a Lost Dog poster.

    2. Panic attacks. Clinical depressions that lasted 18 months. Medication. He calls himself “broken,” “damaged goods,” adrift in “an ocean of despair,” lashed by “torrents of self-loathing.”

      Stability, marriage, a home, kids all elude him. It turns out that while I was dreaming of being Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Springsteen was dreaming of being me.

      this passage struck me right I my feelings

    3. Springsteen was the only rock star that ever made me cry at a concert.
      He performed in Chicago during his solo tour,and about 30 seconds into "Racing in the street" tears were pouring down my cheeks.My wife turned to me and asked "Why are you crying"? "It reminded me of a happy period in my life.Hanging out at the 7-11 with my buddies,our girlfriends and our cars." They truly were tears of joy.

  5. Speaking of getting old, my heart can take only so many of these paeans that start out like obituaries. It would be nice to have some kind of spoiler alert-like "not dead" flag so we don't have to anguish through those first few paragraphs. If the effect is intentional, kudos - it sure works on me.

  6. I was too old for Springsteen, though my sister just a year younger was an early fan. My idea of rock 'n roll wasn't even Elvis, it was Bill Haley. However, listening a couple months ago to an excerpt of a Terry Gross interview with Springsteen, I was intrigued by his frank exposure of his inner life. Thanks, Neil, for reminding me of another book I've just got to read.


  7. Sidenote: for those who hesitate to pay $15/month, you can likely borrow audio books free from your local library. Although Audible certainly has a much wider selection, and currently is offering a 3-month membership at $4.95/month.

    1. I saw the audio book at the library last week and passed on it. I'm gonna rush back now to get it, but it'll probably be gone now.

  8. I was never into Springsteen's music; even though I'm slightly older than Neil, I agree with his sons that the songs all sound the same. But from all indications, he's always been a quality human being. I was touched (and a little amused) at how he married some supermodel, the marriage busted up very soon, and he ended up marrying Patty Scialfa, a band member who by all indications is his true soulmate. Good for him, and her.

    1. Julianne Philips was more an aspiring actress than a supermodel, though very, very pretty.

  9. I tend to agree with the kids -- it all sounds the same. But then most rock music does to my aged ears, with not the wit in the lyrics to redeem the dull lyrics. But I might read the book for the dark personal stuff.

    It's not unheard of for one who seems to have everything going for him to despair. One thinks of Winston Churchill and what he called "the black dog." Closer to home, I recall a young Naval officer I worked with with a nice family and a promising career, who went home for lunch one day and hung himself in the shower. Scuttlebutt was that he had struggled with depression, but avoided seeking help because he thought it might hurt his chances for promotion.

    The poetic exemplar of Neil's statement that while he was dreaming of being Bruce Springsteen, Bruce was dreaming of being him was, of course, Edward Arlington's Richard Cory, "a gentleman from sole to crown, Clean favored and imperially slim." the last two stanzas run:

    "And he was rich -- yes richer than a king --
    And admirably schooled in every grace:
    In fine, we thought that he was everything
    To make us wish that we were in his place.

    And so we worked, and waited for the light
    And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
    And Richard Cory, one calm summer night
    Went home and put a bullet through his head."


  10. Haste makes waste. In the second sentence it should read, "...not the wit in the lyrics to redeem the dull music." And it's Edward Arlington Robinson's Richard Cory.



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